Life In Captivity
Dolphins living in captive conditions face circumstances vastly different than those of the ocean. The surroundings are bare and sterile, with little mental stimulation or diversion. Many captive dolphins are regularly treated with ulcer medication or antidepressant medication to alleviate the frustration of captivity.
Space is limited, which sparks aggression and frustration. When faced with an aggressor, dolphins in the wild can easily swim away to avoid an interaction. Instead captive dolphins often bear scars or rake marks, evidence of a clash with a tank mate.
Prolonged confinement in such small quarters can lead to depression and self-harming behaviors. Numerous documented examples of such behavior have been observed in both dolphins and orcas, such as repeated smashing of heads against tank walls or gnawing on walls and gates. You can read more about Hugo and Morgan’s documented behaviors in captivity.
Dolphins living in captive conditions are often placed in unnatural groupings with dolphins that have come from different families and species, making communication between them difficult or impossible.
Physical Detriments of Captivity
Because tanks lack the depth or size of the open ocean, captive dolphins experience a range conditions not commonly seen in their wild counterparts.
Because tanks and pens at captive facilities have limited depth, dolphins in captivity frequently experience overexposure to the sun, which can result in sunburn and blistering. Often zinc oxide must be applied to their backs to prevent damage. The reflection of sunlight on the water’s surface can also lead to vision problems. Additionally, tanks are often heavily chlorinated, which leads to burning the eyes and causing permanent damage to eyesight.
Labeled as “positive reinforcement” or “operant conditioning”, dolphins are kept hungry enough so that they will comply with instructions from trainers, whether to learn new behaviors or to execute them during a performance or swim-with-dolphin encounter.
In some facilities, the water is improperly treated and maintained, with litter from park customers thrown into tanks, or bacterial growths which lead to lesions and open sores. Other dolphin facilities in sea lagoons near cruise ports collect fuel runoff from ship motors and other marine waste.
Image of a dolphin sea pen in Mexico, taken July 2020.
Dolphins who participate in swim with interactions are regularly observed with persistent wounds and abrasions from being handled by customers, their beaks raw from pushing guests through the water or being grasped for kisses and photo ops. Other wounds are observed as the result of aggressive outbursts from tank companions, as bullying has been regularly documented. Dolphin and whales in captivity are often documented with compromised teeth, often the result of frustrated chewing on their tank walls.
For captive orcas, confinement in small tanks leads to the well-documented “fin flop” in male orcas, a condition noted in 100% of captive male orcas and less than 1% in wild male orcas.
A Lifetime of Training
Wild-captured dolphins must endure significant training to adapt to captivity. They must learn to accept a new diet of dead fish, as well as to undergo a variety of invasive operations, such as tube-feeding and medical examinations.
Even captive-born dolphins must become accustomed to the human interactions required of them. This is accomplished, without exception, through food deprivation training. Labeled as “positive reinforcement” or “operant conditioning”, dolphins are kept hungry enough so that they will comply with instructions from trainers, whether to learn new behaviors or to execute them during a performance or tourist encounter.
Understanding the intelligence and complexity of these species, as well as how they behave in the wild helps us understand that their natural ranges in the open ocean are where they thrive. It is vital that we continue to spread awareness about dolphins to help end exploitation in captivity, and to help wild dolphin populations stay healthy!
Education is the first step to moving others to take action. Help spread the word about protecting dolphins!